Last year unprecedented monsoon rains led to floods and 25 per cent of the country came under water affecting the lives of over 18 million people. Homes and livelihoods were destroyed but apparently no lessons were learnt from the disaster. A year later the story has repeated itself, while the affectees of last year’s floods were still in rehabilitation and many surviving in refugee camps.
Why has flooding become a disastrous yearly phenomenon? Will this happen again next year? Are these pure acts of nature or are there other underlying causes? While the occurrence of the floods year after year may be due to several related and unrelated causes, certainly deforestation and overall environmental degradation in the catchment areas of our rivers is a major contributor to the severity of floods. According to the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), Pakistan has the highest annual deforestation rate in Asia — yet another undesirable high ranking for us. Planting trees and protecting forests is therefore direly needed but this by itself is still not enough to prevent huge run-offs after heavy rains that cause flooding. A more holistic approach needs to be adopted that has watershed management as the central activity, as advocated by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and The Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).
So how does watershed management reduce flooding? The concept of watershed projects is actually quite simple. Upstream, flood control dams are built across small tributaries and natural water channels leading to a larger stream to temporarily trap and store water runoff after heavy rainstorms. The dams slowly release the water over a period of several days through a pipe in the dam. This reduces the amount of water that reaches the main water course immediately after the rain, reducing flooding downstream.
Prior to building dams, watershed management requires rehabilitation of natural water channels, so that rainwater can collect in these courses from different directions moving towards the streams where dams have been built. A watershed management project is being run by the WWF Pakistan for improving sub-watershed management and spreading environmental awareness in the Ayubia National Park (ANP) area. Funded by a multinational beverage company, the project commenced in 2009. With more than 250,000 tourist arrivals annually, ANP is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Pakistan.
Covering over 3,312 hectares, the Park is located within the western Himalaya eco-region and is an important water catchment area. But due to deforestation and topography changes resulting from expanding human settlements, the region is confronted with reduced water flow, low water supply to the Indus, so that six out of 23 springs were dried up when the project began.
The project was divided into two phases, with the first phase ending in June 2010 and the second phase concluding in June this year. Long term benefits that emerged included rehabilitation of water courses, construction of check dams, facilitation of local communities to raise forest nurseries, block plantation of indigenous species in blank areas, plantation of 13,000 multi-purpose trees on marginal agricultural land, establishment of roof rain-water harvesting and storage schemes, and provision of 21 small-scale water filtration plants.
The local communities were successfully activated in conservation of natural resources and watershed management, resulting in less dependence on natural resources. Vegetation cover on despoiled slopes, forest and rangeland of sub-watersheds has been improved by planting local species on degraded grassland, protecting degraded forest through reduction in free-grazing and forest fire, stabilising landslides and improving ground vegetation from 50 to 80 per cent.
To provide alternative resources for better livelihood, improved vegetable and cut-flower cultivation and fruit orchards were introduced through demo-plots and on-job trainings. To increase income of communities, three forest nurseries of 15,000 plants were raised by women workers. To educate people about nature conservation and its importance, teachers were trained in environmental education and nature clubs are established in 40 local schools.
In the third phase, an even greater participation by the stakeholders will ensure the sustainability of the systems introduced.
So far half a million dollars have been spent on the project and another US$ 100,000 for the third phase that kicked off this July is expected to achieve the set targets by June 2012.
If the government and other private sector companies adopt similar watershed management projects all over the northern areas, not only will the local communities benefit, but we could also control disastrous floods from occurring year after year.
This article was first published in DAWN (Images) on October 16, 2011